THE BLOG

Turbulent Priests and Turbulent News Cycles

28/10/2011 10:02 BST | Updated 27/12/2011 10:12 GMT

What a 24 hours! First there was a flash evensong on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral (think the cool T-Mobile advert in Liverpool Street Station, but with a spontaneous church service instead) which I was fortunate to attend. Next came the announcement from the Dean, the Rt Rev Graeme Knowles, that the historic Wren designed London landmark, closed for over a week for unknown health and safety reasons, was to reopen this afternoon. Finally, Thursday morning brought the news that Giles Fraser, the Canon Chancellor who had welcomed the protestors so warmly at the start of last week that he shooed away from the Cathedral steps not the pigeons but the police, was resigning in the light of the Cathedral Chapter and the Corporation of London moving to evict the Occupy LSX village in St Paul's Cathedral, by force if necessary.

How did we get to this point, where up and down the country people are once again moaning at the mention of the Church of England? What lessons can be learnt from the series of PR gaffes which most people are now acknowledging have been committed by St Paul's and others?

To begin with, there are lessons of collegiality. Giles Fraser's goose was cooked the moment he took a different line to that of his boss. You can't have the boss of an institution (for that is what Cathedral Deans are, a peculiar breed of parish priest who rarely have to answer even to a Bishop) saying one thing and an underling (for ultimately that is what Giles Fraser was) saying another. That's doubly so when the underling is technically the purse holder (hence the title "Canon Chancellor") and the point of disagreement was in part over what financial impact the Cathedral would be willing to suffer as a consequence of the presence of hundreds of protestors camped outside.

While Fraser might argue that, "Nobody was a villain in this, it has been a matter of conscience for everyone", in his interview with the Independent this afternoon, that is a different thing from accepting the consequences of taking a particular consequential stance. Fraser might be absolutely right that Jesus is exactly the kind of God who would be born in a tent as a despised outcast, but now Fraser is joining him there in the wilderness outside the church walls. It is one thing to voice one's opinions in the closed environment of meeting one's colleagues; it is another to knowingly contradict your boss before that meeting has ever taken place.

But Giles will be fine - there is a vacancy at St Martin in the Fields (from where the less than conservative Nick Holtam has gone to the see of Salisbury) and he will fit in comfortably there or in a number of other set-piece liberal churches. Fraser will have no problem finding a job, it's just that after this week it won't ever again be anything more than being a parish priest. The lesson of collegiality has been learnt the hard way and it is time to move on.

But if only the Church of England could move on with the second lesson it has to learn, and that is to up its game at PR very quickly. The past fortnight has been an utter media relations disaster, with little evidence of strategic planning and even less evidence of a coherent church wide response to the events literally on its doorstep. The until recently Press Secretary for Lambeth Palace George Pitcher's recent column in the Church Times was a full frontal assault on the way that the Church of England handles its media relations. He wrote how far too few communications professionals in the Church view journalists as the enemy and that the powerful tools of social media are shunned by the hierarchy in an institution that stills employs people to read the daily papers for news items involving the Church. Have they not heard of Google News Searches?

Even yesterday's publication of a column in the Evening Standard, apparently authored by the Bishop of London Richard Chartres is an example of an institution acting reactively not proactively. The time for such a piece was the end of last week, to set the news agenda not respond to it. The Church of England needs to up its game and learn how to act like a media operation that is ahead of the game. It can be done. Diocesan Communications Directors like Gavin Drake up in Lichfield are clear examples of PR professionals who know how to shape stories and stay on top of, or even in control of, the news cycle.

When the dust settles from the events of this week there should be time for serious reflection on the lessons above. The Church of England should not be afraid of working proactively with modern communications and the digital media world, and at the same time it should train its members how to handle crises like these and to learn what "one voice and one message" looks like in practice. The Church has one huge advantage - the media will listen to it when it speaks and it has the extra bonus of being situated bang slap in the middle of every single community in England whether they like it or not. It's time it took hold of that opportunity properly, understood how the modern world creates, receives and digests its news and started acting appropriately. Then perhaps we might be able to start talking apart some good news for a change.

The Reverend Peter Ould is a non-stipendiary Church of England priest. He writes on issues around the Church, Christianity and Ethics at www.peter-ould.net and is also responsible for the Twurch of England project at www.twurchofengland.org.uk